‘I used to play rugby but had to give up when I became pregnant.’ To be fair it’s not an entirely unusual excuse nowadays with women’s rugby becoming more and more popular (England’s backline includes flyers such as Katie Mclean and Emily Scarratt who are well worth a watch).
No, the odd thing about my Kiwi osteopath’s comment as she made small talk while uncricking my back from an entirely un-rugby related injury, was she was talking about touch rugby – an apparently less violent version of the sport. ‘I kept on getting hit in the stomach so thought it was probably a good idea to call it quits.’
Competitive mixed touch rugby is in fact one of the newest phenomenons of the British sporting scene. If you go down to Clapham Common or Regent’s Park on Saturday afternoons you will come across teams of gleamingly healthy antipodeans, with the odd Brit chucked in, all wearing matching singlets and offering more passes and skill then you often see on a dull day in the Six Nations.
Since the RFU and its sponsors O2 started investing heavily in mixed touch rugby in 2013, there are now 20,000 registered players across the UK making it one of the country’s fastest growing sports. Touch rugby is almost more like rugby league but with less violence. Instead of tackles, a simple tap is required to stop an opponent in his or her tracks whereupon the ball is reset and play resumes. The skill comes in creating space, zooming past the opposition so they can’t even get a fingertip to you while showing them a clean pair of heels.
The sport is equally popular with both sexes: ‘Males and females get to compete alongside each other on equal terms on the field which is almost unique in team sports,’ Mike Abromowitz from In2Touch, which co-ordinates mixed touch rugby leagues across the country, points out. ‘It’s also a great way to meet people, especially in a big city like London, as people socialise on the field and after games in the club rooms.’
The odd thing though when watching these matches is how the stereotypes one expects from men and women competing don’t stack up. I was expecting to see feminine guile do battle with masculine physicality. In reality, with the brute force of the tackle and ruck made redundant, the emphasis is much more on teamwork. Line breaks typically lead to tries so the trick is to move the ball around and try and force a mismatch in numbers or convince the defence to look the wrong way.
As my New Zealand source mentions this doesn’t stop the games from being physical. At Clapham Common at the weekend I still saw people of all sexes collide into each other at pace, but this aggression is bedsides the point when you don’t have eight burly forwards to rely on to drive over your prone body and try and win the ball back.
At a time when players are becoming ever more gigantic to the extent that there are calls to ban tackling at schoolboy level, there is something quite refreshing about touch’s emphasis on nous rather than pumping iron to get ahead. Mixed touch rugby is also very social. In September there was a fancy dress tournament in Hyde Park where teams were allocated different countries to dress up as (they were all given three weeks’ notice to perfect their costumes).
Hence, the popularity of this new form of the game feels much more like rugby returning to its egalitarian amateur roots. Men and women playing together could be the modern manifestations of 18 stone props playing with flyweight wingers. Watching the teams compete on Saturday I sensed the spirit of the South Stand at the Hong Kong Sevens, all bright colours, fancy dress and drinking, not a world of elite performance, weights and leaden days at Twickenham. Like the props and wingers of old, each has their place, but it’s good to see rugby getting some of its joy back. Mixed touch is a welcome addition to the club.